Students were asked to name a pot, a pan, utensils, some ingredients, too — all in Spanish.
“Celia, where is the tomato?” asked instructor Juan Rosado, while the chef puckered his lips in the direction of the produce on a nearby tray. He was trying to give Celia a hint.
The lesson was part of a cooking class at the Free Library of Philadelphia this month for the especially challenging dual-purpose work of gaining communication and culinary skills, this time to learn Spanish while making a pasta dish under the tutelage of chef José Luis Reynoso and Ana Roque. The Edible Alphabet class listened to ’80s salsa music and divided into groups to boil water, cut vegetables, and work on plating.
For teachers Roque and Reynoso, the class was just one stop on a long journey to create Alta Cocina — what started on a whim as a YouTube channel and is now on its way to becoming a food-truck business. But in a city with about 11,000 Latino small businesses out of about 104,000 total, the path to becoming an entrepreneur, navigating trusted sources of information, and finding people to explain in a language they better understand, can be rocky and frustrating.
“We are risking everything we have — our reputation, economic stability ― to be where we think we need to be: sharing our talent and passion for cooking with the people. And we are going to get there. God has it written,” said Reynoso, 46.
It’s what the couple has always done, even when they first met in Philadelphia — Roque by way of the Dominican Republic and New York, eventually running her own beauty salon; and Reynoso, from the Dominican Republic, then Madrid, working in cities across Europe and the Caribbean as a chef for the hotel chain Catalonia. The two met after Roque’s brother introduced them in early 2013; they married in September that same year.
“We bonded in the blink of an eye,” Roque, 51, said.
Soon they learned how well they complemented each other. While Roque is outspoken, Reynoso is happier to focus on using his hands.
So when Reynoso couldn’t find a restaurant in which he could expand his talents after having worked at four, and Roque was diagnosed with lupus and tendinitis in her left arm due to years of straightening hair, the couple decided to take the risk and start their own business.
“People will never feel your passion when you’re behind the limitations of your bosses,” Reynoso said.
The goal: open a Dominican-European fusion food truck — seafood paella, mangú with salami and boiled eggs, octopus salad, fish ceviche, pork ears and tostones, stuffed eggplant with ham and cheese. These nonexotic plates presented elegantly would fill in the gaps, they thought, in Philly’s more mainstream Latino food scene.
But they had no budget, and no clear idea of where to start.
They took what turned out to be the first step last year, by creating a YouTube channel called Alta Cocina por el Chef José Luis. With the support of a videographer nephew, Reynoso and Roque started to publicize his cooking.
The two-and-a-half minute segments run weekly, with Reynoso preparing an “easy and simple” meal for viewers to follow at home. In addition to the channel, which has about 500 subscribers, their Instagram account has led to opportunities like the Free Library gig. An entrepreneurial marketing class at Temple University’s Fox School of Business also has chosen them as a case study to bolster their business plan and offer audience growth strategies on social media. In the meantime, they’ve had to hire two people to manage those social accounts.
Tanya Santiago, 47, follows Alta Cocina on Instagram. She said she admires their work, a “brilliant way to present food with photo and video,” something people from all over the world love.
Already they have invested $15,000 in the project and taken out $4,000 in personal loans. Roque said that it has been difficult to find guidance, to develop a business plan, to know whom to trust, or how not to be misled.
According to Jimmy Durán, vice president and development officer for small business lending at Wilmington, Del.,-based bank The Bancorp, this is common among Latino immigrants who want to start a businesses here.
“There are cultural factors that affect these entrepreneurs — like the perception they may have of what taking out a loan means, or their understanding of what taxpayers’ money is used for, or what the requirements are for creating a business project,” said Durán, the former programs director for the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Most Latino entrepreneurs in Philadelphia tend to lack a credit history, he said, which affects their ability to get loans. Also, business practices in Latin American and Caribbean countries tend to emphasize the connections you have; to establish business plans before you know you’ll have the green light to proceed is like putting the cart before the horse.
“Honestly, we need to find ways to develop a welcome kit, a 411 sources guide, that we can support these people in becoming a workforce and economic power in the city,” Durán said.
Roque and Reynoso have registered as an LLC, designed a logo, taken out two loans to start building credit history, and have begun the licensing process for the food truck. But they also recently had to resubmit paperwork to a bank, and still haven’t received approval from the city to park their food truck.
Despite the challenges, the couple works as a team. Roque keeps looking for opportunities to showcase the brand. She is taking English classes after earning a certificate for Entrepreneur Latina Women with a local service organization called Finanta. Reynoso finds time during the week to study media literacy after working 12-hour shifts at a North Philly restaurant. He doesn’t make any decisions without his wife’s approval.
Eventually, they hope to open restaurants, publish a book of recipes, and brand and bottle an original sauce Reynoso makes for meat and fish. And they continue to produce their YouTube shows.
After a three-hour filming session at the couple’s home kitchen, videographer Alexander López, 38, uploaded a photo of the chef’s latest dish to his Instagram story. Soon, neighbors and friends would start filtering into their home (everyone knows which nights filming takes place) to eat a dozen chicken thighs with mashed yuca.
Among the visitors was Noeli Méndez, dining there for the first time. She was surprised to learn she wasn’t eating mashed potatoes.
“I had never tasted yuca like this before,” Méndez, 27, said. “It has such a rich texture.”